PROVIDENCE — If it were any other breed of tree, the 108-year-old elm recently cut downon the grounds of the John Brown House Museum, might have gone down as just another old pile of wood.
Instead, the stately 75-foot-tall, 6-foot diameter elm, which suffered from a deadly, contagious canker called Sphaeropsis ulmicola, was argued over before its demise and memorialized and mourned afterward. And now the Rhode Island Historical Society, which operates the John Brown House, is leading a group that includes Dale Bonholm, senior critic of the Department of Furniture Design at the Rhode Island School of Design, that plans to create pieces from the tree to commemorate it.
It’s difficult to imagine an oak tree getting such love.
“It’s so hard for many of us to put into words why this tree deserves an obituary,” said Morgan Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society. “Elms are just that special, and this one has been through a lot.”
Through the 1960s, neighborhoods across the United States featured streets named “Elm.” And this elm, one of 13 planted in 1905 as part of a Frederick Law Olmsted design, made it through the New England Hurricane of 1938, which tore through the region, destroying homes and damaging tens of thousands of trees. It also survived the Dutch elm disease plague of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s that wiped out 100 million American elms, including thousands in New England.
When the Providence elm was first diagnosed in January, historical society officials were under the impression it was suffering from Dutch elm disease. Additional testing revealed the canker was the culprit, though that was no better news than Dutch elm disease.
If there was one bright side, Grefe said, it’s that the remaining trees on the grounds of the estate have been tested and appear to be healthy. Still, as a precaution, they’ll be treated this spring against the canker, says Kathy Clarendon, a spokeswoman for the historical society.
“It’s so hard for many of us to put into words why this tree deserves an obituary. Elms are just that special, and this one has been through a lot.”
The lush, parklike property of the Brown House was commissioned by Marsden Perry, a self-made millionaire industrialist and banker. A Massachusetts native, Perry purchased and demolished a neighboring Queen Anne mansion and soon after had the trees planted to provide a more idyllic view of the John Brown House, which he’d purchased to live in — and to thumb his nose at the Providence aristocracy.
At the turn of the century, displacing a house to plant trees was unheard of. But for Perry, it was a statement. He had arrived.
Perry, who was born and raised in Rehoboth, came from a family of farmers, but was determined to work his way into wealth and prominence. He went into business, eventually got involved in banking, then railroads and utilities. By the time he was 40, Perry had purchased the John Brown House, an imposing three-story brick mansion in Providence, built during the years following the Revolutionary War.
“The significance of that is Perry was an average guy. He came from humble beginnings,” Grefe said. “He was new money and not widely accepted among the upper crust in Providence.”
So Perry, in his quest to demonstrate his power as Rhode Island’s wealthiest man at the time, hired the celebrated Olmsted to design all the landscaping at the John Brown House, Clarendon says. Thus came the towering elms that still surround the property.
With their gracious lines, elms have been the subject of art and literature for centuries, from Needham-born Alvan Fisher’s 1854 work, “Pastoral Landscape,” to British painter John Constable’s 1821 piece, “Study of an Elm Tree.”
The oldest elms have names, guards, and sometimes personal caretakers, like the “Preston Twins,” a pair of 400-year-old elms in Preston Park in Brighton, England. The old “Liberty Elm” near Boston Common was a rallying point of protest against British rule.
Andy Felix, a certified arborist whose Foxborough company Tree Tech once maintained the elms on Boston Common for the city, believes that elms are the perfect shade tree. They have no low-hanging branches and they develop beautiful, picturesque canopies.
“The shape and form of the tree is just considered to be so majestic,” Felix said. “Almost a weeping-style tree, but more grand.”
It was in the early 1900s, as elms were so overplanted, when they became vulnerable to Dutch elm disease, a pathogen spread from tree to tree by beetles that infect the trees’ vascular systems.
Despite the initial diagnosis of disease, that is not what doomed the Providence elm.
Sphaeropsis ulmicola weakens elms’ immune systems and kills small branches. Its spores can spread so quickly that it can be difficult — sometimes impossible — to prune away the dead branches before others are infected. Sphaeropsis ulmicola may not have killed as many trees as Dutch elm disease over the years, but it has proven to be particularly deadly to older elms, said Michael Dosmann, curator of living collections at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain.
“With older trees and other stress, these minor diseases can gain an impressive foothold and lead to significant decline and eventual death,” Dosmann said. “It could be what happened in this case. You could liken it to flu in humans — people under stress can die from the same virus that may only waylay you and I for a day or two.”
In the end, that’s what happened on the grounds of the John Brown House.
“The best way I can describe it, elms have played such a classic role in our lives,” said Grefe, director of the historical society. “They lined the streets of thousands of residential neighborhoods in our country. They sort of stand guard and shelter us. And it seems like so many of them have stories to tell.”